This week, March 8-14, is Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week. During this time, we like to take the opportunity to highlight the significant improvement pulmonary rehabilitation can make in the quality of life for those with chronic breathing problems.

With nearly 65 million people around the world suffering from moderate to severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you would think more would utilize pulmonary rehab. However, a recent study supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute found that out of almost 250,000 patients hospitalized for COPD, less than 5 percent received pulmonary rehab after discharge. Part of the reason this percentage is so low stems from awareness, so let’s be a part of the solution.

What exactly is pulmonary rehab, you ask? The following definition has been adopted by The American Thoracic Society: Pulmonary rehabilitation is an evidence-based, multidisciplinary and comprehensive intervention for patients with chronic respiratory diseases who are symptomatic and often have decreased daily life activities. In simpler terms, pulmonary rehabilitation is a program to help people with chronic (long-term) lung disease live a better life.

Here is the part that really makes pulmonary rehab special; the benefits are seen even in irreversible pulmonary disorders. Frequently disabilities associated with chronic respiratory diseases are not from the respiratory disorder per se, but from secondary morbidities that are often treatable if recognized. While the degree of airway obstruction or hyperinflation does not change with pulmonary rehab, the program can help reverse muscle deconditioning which enables patients to be more active with less breathing difficulty.

While pulmonary rehab programs vary in format and length, most include the following components:

• Supervised exercise training

• Education on the condition, symptoms, medications and oxygen

• Breathing techniques

• Nutritional counseling

• Emotional health support

• Maintenance

The components of the program are supervised by our team of multidisciplinary providers, including physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and an exercise specialist. The team creates a plan that's tailored to the abilities and needs of each individual patient and includes exercises and lifestyle changes to implement at home.

While supervised exercise training is the foundation of pulmonary rehabilitation, it does not alter underlying respiratory impairment, as mentioned earlier. However, the right amount and type of exercise has many benefits. It can improve heart and muscle strength, increase energy levels and help patients use oxygen more efficiently.

Education is of the upmost importance throughout pulmonary rehabilitation. During the program patients learn everything they need to know about their specific chronic lung disease. They go over anatomy, physiology, breathing techniques and medication management.

When someone can’t breathe, that’s a scary feeling. Pulmonary rehab patients are taught breathing strategies to help increase oxygen levels and better manage symptoms – and fears. Patients may also learn how to keep breathing issues in check and avoid supplementary oxygen. Others learn how and when to use their oxygen correctly to maximize quality of life.

Another important concern for those suffering from chronic lung disease is achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. Excessive body weight can increase shortness of breath, and low body weight can decrease the ability to fight infections. Plus, when short of breath it can be hard to eat. Patients learn to prepare nutritious food without getting stressed or too tired.

It’s difficult living with any disease. Patients often experience depression, anxiety and other emotional problems. At St. Mary’s Medical Center, we offer services that help patients deal with those emotions by teaching coping strategies.

Finally, the tools obtained through a pulmonary rehab program should persist throughout life in order to avoid hospitalizations, complications and other issues. Not to mention, those who use those tools feel better. St. Mary’s offers a maintenance option that allows patients to return for exercise classes and support groups after the program is over.

If you have a chronic lung disease and you want to feel better, one of the best ways may be to go to a pulmonary rehabilitation program. It may be hard and will take some time, but you should feel much better after attending. Ask your doctor about a local program.

If you have questions or would like more information about Pulmonary Rehabilitation at St. Mary's Medical Center call 816-655-5251.